The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward

“By the mid-1920s, Hammett’s detective experiences were like a set of tools he rummaged through and sharpened as needed for his craft.”

If you’re looking for a biography of Dashiell Hammett, then keep going. The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, from Nathan Ward has a very narrow focus, and one the author explains in the Acknowledgements: “exactly how he [Hammett] had made his famous transformation from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story.” Sounds interesting? … then read on.

In 1915 Baltimore, after a run of unsatisfactory employment, Sam Hammett answered an ad for “young men fond of travel.” As fate would have it, this ad was one of the Pinkerton’s “blind recruitment ads,” which supposedly sought salesmen but, in actuality, was a tool for screening resourceful men. Hammett was interviewed at the Continental Trust building (incidentally “guarded by small stone falcons,”) and began his career. The author traces Hammett’s career as a Pinkerton operative and makes an infallible case that Hammett’s experiences not only gave him street cred but also the hardened “cinematic” style that eventually brought him success:

What he wrote was at odds with the largely English tradition of detective fiction, a gentlemanly deductive exercise in which the reader followed an aloof inspector to the crime’s brilliant solution, often set at an English country estate. The Pinkertons had taught him the opposite lesson: that most crimes were actually solved by detectives who were observant and who circulated among the grifters, gangsters, forgers and hop heads. “A private detective does not want to be an erudite solver of riddles,” Hammett explained; “he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”

Ward argues that Hammett’s style was shaped by his years as a Pinkerton detective–not just by the varied experiences and insider language he had, but also through the required pared down report writing, a sort of “literary training,” required by his employer. While many of the reports still exist in the Pinkerton archives in the library of Congress, tragically none of Hammett’s reports remain. Yet in spite of an absence of reports, Hammett often told stories about his past as a Pinkerton detective–various wounds, various experiences as he built his professional persona: “Hammett liked to embellish his old Pinkerton career, especially when flogging new projects in newspaper interviews.”  One story he told is that he was offered $5,000 to kill an organizer for the International Workers of the World. As Hammett became an iconic writer of detective fiction, some of these stories shifted–not that the details changed but the portrait of Hammett as a Pinkerton sharpened and then blurred. For example, Hammett claimed that James “Jimmy” Wright was his model for the fictional Continental Op but there’s no “proof of the elusive mentor Jimmy Wright.” However, the name “James Wright had long been a popular alias with Pinkertons working undercover.”

By the time the detectives he’d invented had their own renown, the one Hammett had been himself was cloudy, cloaked in his own disguising, and unacknowledged by the Pinkerton agency that had supposedly trained him in the devilish arts. Yet all of his investigators were extensions in one direction or another of the one he had been himself.

It’s important to note that the Pinkerton agency didn’t look at memoirs from former employees fondly. “Cowboy Detective,” Charlie Siringo, one of the Pinkertons who pursued Butch Cassidy and the Hole-in-the-Wall gang led a fascinating exciting life that he wanted to translate into a memoir. “The Pinkerton family held up publications for two years, until Siringo had changed many crucial names” including the name of the Pinkertons to a make-believe “Dickenson Agency.” Hammett’s detective worked for the Continental Detective Agency–clearly a twist to the Continental Building in Baltimore where he’d first applied for a job as salesman only to discover that he was applying to Pinkertons.

The Lost DetectiveHammett’s career as a Pinkerton was interrupted by WWI. In 1918 he joined the army and although he never left America, he contracted first influenza and then TB. On a disability pension from the army, he tried to return to work as a Pinkerton but eventually was forced to give up detective work. Later, drifting to San Francisco, he tried returning to Pinkertons again, but his health could not sustain the physical demands of the job. Married with one child (and another on the way), he struggled to build his career as a writer. His stories appeared in “lower rank” magazine Black Mask–a name now lauded by crime fiction aficionados for its gargantuan contribution to the genre. Hammett’s work was popular: innovative, hard-boiled and uniquely American:

Hammett opted to do something that grew out of what he had actually been trained for: creating elevated stories from the characters and situations he knew well, instead of adding to the fiction club of gentleman puzzlers or quick-draw artists. This approach would eventually set crime writing on its head.

The book explores Hammett’s early life in San Francisco, his evolution as both a writer and as a persona while tracing threads of his Pinkerton life and his private life, (including his affair with Peggy O’Toole,) through his works. Again, since this is not a biography, the book doesn’t include details of the entirety of Hammett’s life but stays focused on how Hammett became a writer. The book doesn’t follow Hammett to the end of his life, but instead leaves him, teetering, at the peak of his career. This is fascinating stuff for anyone interested in the genre of detective fiction or the evolution of Hammett.

“Hammett moved murder out of the drawing room and into the alley.”

Review copy

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10 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Ward Nathan

10 responses to “The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward

  1. I never knew much about Hammett’s life.

    It is so interesting that he was a Pinkerton detective. The Pinkerton agency was fascinating in its own right. It is so interesting how it played such an important part in American history.

  2. Another book that you have found that sounds really interesting although I’ve only barely heard of The Pinkerton agency.

  3. You beat me to it, Guy. I’ve just ordered this one and looking forward to it greatly, all the more so now.

  4. How fascinating to read about Hammett’s experience as Pinkerton operative and how this influenced his trademark prose style. It’s a real shame none of his Pinkerton reports survived – they would have made very interesting reading.

    • That’s exactly what I thought: what a shame there are no reports. Some of the stories Hammett told of his days as a Pinkerton seem a little suspect (the author tackles this) but then it’s hard to tell the truth from exaggeration.

  5. Fascinating.
    I haven’t read him yet but he’s on my mental TBR.
    Too bad his reports are missing…

  6. Sounds great, although I’m a little surprised someone has to “make the case” that his Pinkerton experience fed into his writing career: that would seem self-evident, surely? The link with the reporting and its influence on his style is a valuable additional detail though.

    The Pinkertons are ubiquitous in movies and books about the turn of the century and pre-WW1 period, but now I think about it I know little about them. As you say Guy a book dedicated to their story would be worth a look.

    • I’ve been talking about this book to Americans here, and without exception, those I talked to had no idea that Hammett was a Pinkerton, and perhaps not so curiously, they then expressed interest in reading him.
      The book is full of links between the characters and general Pinkerton experience. Well worth reading prior to plunging into Hammett.
      I’ve read about some of their civil war activities. And apparently the Jesse James gang tortured and killed a Pinkerton.

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